Bill Hart baked his first pie in 1971, and we should all give thanks for that day.
It was a bean pie, a rarity in Seattle, with roots that go back to the late ’60s and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s belief that the navy bean was a more nutritious ingredient than the sweet potato. A teen, Hart was deeply intrigued by a recipe he had for bean pie, but his mom — not a particular fan of the Nation of Islam — told him that if he wanted it, he should bake it himself. It turned out so well that he’s kept baking pies since. In fact, that bean pie became the basis for a business.
That bean pie — which Hart has since tweaked from his original recipe — was the only pie he baked for his first decade in business, and it’s still wonderful, whether you’re familiar with its 20th-century American roots or whether it’s completely new to you. Its filling is a thick, creamy purée with a strong, sweet cinnamon flavor — a bit like sweet-potato or pumpkin pie, with a mild, dense, custard-like base. As is proper, but also as home bakers know is tricky, there’s a beautifully light, flaky crust under that rich filling.
The bean custard is heavier than Hart’s buttery-smooth sweet-potato filling, and sweeter than his version of pumpkin. Of these three, sweet potato is the lightest, with a hint of orange; bean tastes something like snickerdoodle fudge; pumpkin is the most surprising. Is that lemon instead of the usual cinnamon-ginger-clove mix? It’s sharp and interesting, and whether it makes you smile or frown likely depends on how much of a traditionalist you are. It is very difficult to choose a favorite among these three flavors.
This is not to ignore the other Southern delights in the case. There are four chess-pie options: coconut, key lime, lemon and one named tropical, which merges the first three into one brilliant, lime-in-the-coconut bit of excellence. Lemon has a bright, clear flavor that is more tartly refreshing than typical chess pie; it fits perfectly into a feast when you’ve sworn you don’t have room for another bite but then immediately say “well, maybe a sliver.” Pecan pie is loaded with chopped nuts in a custard that isn’t painfully sweet, and Hart sells two double-crust fruit pies that he calls cobblers. Of these choices, he says that sweet-potato pie and peach cobbler are the two most popular throughout the year, but pumpkin’s holiday-season surge is still noticeable.
The dilemma of choosing among flavors for the holiday spread is easy to solve, thanks to Hart’s three sizes. Tarts ($1.50 to $2) are about three bites; mediums ($5 to $7.50) are approximately one generous slice; regulars ($20 to $35) are 9-inch pies that serve about eight people. A big assortment of tarts lets everyone have whatever flavor they like; the mediums are just right for couples to share (or for a private stash of pie for after a late-night sandwich); the regulars are the classic slice-and-share choice.
It’s a small shop, and prepaid advance orders are recommended.
~Jill Lightner, The Seattle Times